Responsibility eludes tabloid columnist

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As a gaming tribe in California, we are under tremendous scrutiny by the
state, the federal government, the community and the media. It has become
commonplace to spend significant effort explaining and defending everything
we do - from our decision to serve alcohol in our fine dining restaurant to
purchasing land for development.

Trust me, I'm not complaining. We have become accustomed to battling the
many tribal opponents in our community in Santa Barbara County. What I'm
not used to, however, is battling a so-called proponent of Indian gaming.
And that's exactly what I feel I have to do in responding to Dave Palermo's
perspective that ran in Indian Country Today on Dec. 1, 2004 (Vol. 24, Iss.
25).

To say that Palermo's column was disturbing would be an understatement.
It's not that we necessarily care about the opinion of an insignificant
freelancer like Palermo. We don't. It's hard to take anyone seriously who
doesn't even bother to check his facts before running such a damaging
piece.

But what was so troubling is that his piece appeared in Indian Country
Today, a publication that claims that it has been a persuasive voice in
American Indian journalism, leading the way with accurate and timely
reporting, incisive analysis and pointed commentary.

I'd like to know what's newsworthy about the fact that a few of our tribal
members took a path that they wished they hadn't. Yes, one of our former
gaming commissioners, who is now in his 70s, got into trouble with the law.
Four decades ago. Do the editors of Indian Country Today think that's on
the cutting edge of news? In fact, that tribal member has more than paid
for his missteps and was one of our most knowledgeable and dedicated gaming
commissioners. Many objective observers will attest to that - and one did,
as printed in The Los Angeles Times.

Palermo wrote that we had a blatant disregard for proper regulation. How is
that possible? We have one of the most successful casinos in the state.
Could that happen if we didn't pay close attention to regulating our
casino? I think not.

He also wrote that The Los Angeles Times reported that seven current and
former Chumash gaming commissioners had criminal backgrounds. I suggest
that Palermo take remedial reading classes. That's not what the Times
reporter wrote.

This line kills me: "And if the regulatory system put in place by the Santa
Ynez is operated by felons, believe me, it is not working." The only thing
felonious is Palermo's writing style - and his fact-checking.

Palermo claimed that our tribe turned everyone into liars. How did we do
that? By working for a decade, using the resources we had available, to
build and maintain a successful gaming operation? We may not have had MBAs,
but we had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and motivation to succeed. It
was interesting how harshly he judged us based on what he didn't know about
our tribe.

What Palermo didn't know, and didn't bother to learn, is that The Los
Angeles Times article that he based his editorial on, was based on
allegations from a former employee. Read: Disgruntled employee. We all know
what happens when employees are unhappy with an employer - they make a lot
of noise without ever substantiating their claims. That was certainly the
case with this former employee.

Many of the allegations that the former employee made happened long before
our compact agreement with the state of California. The compact agreement
with the state provides a regulatory structure and adequately defines
regulations in a framework that didn't previously exist. Although we've
been operating under our compact agreement for four years, Indian gaming as
an industry is still in its infancy.

It should also be noted that the allegations of wrongdoing virtually all
predate the compacts that went into effect in 2000. Since that time, there
are no suggestions of illegal activities or lax regulation.

In fact, the Division of Gambling Control of California's Attorney
General's office recently visited our casino and noted in a letter dated
Dec. 10, 2004 that after their review of our casino, we are in compliance
with our compact agreement with the state. In their letter, the Division
acknowledged that it is the responsibility of the Tribal Commission to
conduct on-site gaming regulation and control in order to enforce the terms
of the compact. The Division's review was conducted on a mutually respected
government-to-government basis as was intended to serve the mutual
interests of the tribe and the state.

The fact that the division found that we are in compliance was no surprise
to us because we know that we run our facility with integrity and
professionalism. In spite of Palermo's attempt to link the personal issues
of individual tribal members with the way in which we run our casino, this
recent visit from the Attorney General's office clearly demonstrates that
the connection can't be made.

I could almost see the sneer on Palermo's face as his condescending
attitude came through loud and clear in his column. Perhaps his most
harmful and disgusting sentence was: "The only thing tribes have to fear
are those tribes who shouldn't be in the business. We now know at least one
of them."

Is he suggesting that we shouldn't be in business because a few of our
tribal members have made personal mistakes in their lives? Because
basically, that's what the Times piece boils down to and Palermo was quick
to jump on that bandwagon. If that's the case, maybe Palermo should become
the personal issue police and close down every tribal casino - and every
other business in the world. Who hasn't made a mistake in their life?
Certainly, Palmero has.

In a faxed note to our tribe, Palermo told us that if we proved certain
things to him, he would write an apology. First of all, we don't have to
prove anything to him. Secondly, we don't need an apology from him. What we
do need, however, are commentators who have their facts straight before
shooting off their mouths.

Robert T. Ortega is the vice chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash
Indians.